Sunday, 21 August 2011

The trouble with Osh

On the 10th June 2010 an argument broke out outside a casino in Kyrgyzstan’s second city. Located in the south of the country, in the fertile Fergana valley, the city of Osh dates back to the 5th century BC and has an ethnic split between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. The argument last year was over some money and happened to be between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Simmering tensions have long existed between the two communities. The Uzbeks have historically been more urban dwelling people whilst the Kyrgyz have traditionally been nomadic. However, in recent history the Kyrgyz have abandoned their nomadic lifestyles and increasingly moved into urban areas, particularly in Soviet times. In Osh the Uzbek community had well established businesses and spacious homes. As the argument continued on that day a completely baseless rumour was spree by text that some Kyrgyz women, living in a University dorm next to the casino, had been raped. This rumour spread like wildfire within and beyond Osh. Within hours people poured into the city enraged. Four days of violence ensued. Homes and businesses were torched, people murdered and women were forced to walk down the streets naked before being gang raped; as the police did nothing. The official figures are that 487 people died and over 100,000 Uzbeks fled across the border to Uzbekistan. People across Kyrgyzstan were terrified that this would initiate war with Uzbekistan.

A year on as we drove into Osh in a shared taxi an old Uzbek man silently pointed to every burnt out building we passed. He kept he hand low so the driver could not see what he was doing but he wanted to make sure that we saw the extent of the destruction. No one talks openly about what happened, everyone wants to forget about it and move on. Apart from the ruins, it would be quite easy to travel in Osh without realising what had happened. Many of the Uzbeks have returned and the market is bursting with fruit and vegetables, albeit with stalls set up amongst the burnt out ruins. After staying a while we noticed small things which revealed a continued fear and suspicion between communities; the Kyrgyz taxi driver who drove the long way around to avoid an Uzbek part of town or the suspicions of how communities had made their money with baseless accusations of drugs smuggling.

The situation is incredibly complex and there is no one explanation, many people argue that there is no underlying problem between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities it is the politicians who exploit the different ethnicities for their own benefit and a lazy media who explain every incident in ethnic terms. But combine this with the drugs trade, water insecurity and corruption, and the mix can be explosive. For us, however, our various stays in Osh throughout our two months in Kyrgyzstan were pleasant. Being situated in the Fergana valley, the bread basket of Central Asia, we gorged on fresh fruit and vegetables. When we first arrived it was cherry and apricot season but by the time we left it was peaches and watermelons which could be bought for pennies.

There are many NGOs now working in Osh on conflict prevention and reconciliation but it is an uphill struggle when so few people want to talk about what happened. Moving forward will no doubt be a difficult and painful journey and it is impossible to say which will be the best strategy to take but one thing I am sure over is that  trying to sweep everything under the carpet and ignore what happened is not a long term solution.     

 Osh market carries on despite being burnt last year

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